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Published 03 May 2023
Reading Time
7 minutes

How to Become a Freelancer: 7 Tips From People Who Have Done it

If you are employed, you might dream of giving up your nine-to-five and working for yourself. Freelancing can provide an avenue to do just that. But how do you become a freelancer? We asked three freelancers for their tips on where to start.

It’s easy to see the appeal of becoming a freelancer. It allows you to take the reins of your professional life – you can work when you want, where you want, and for who you want.

“I felt like I was being put in a box based on what other people wanted me to be, and I didn’t have much control over my career progression,” explains product designer Sade Taiwo. By going freelance, she has instead been able to dictate the terms of her own career.

But where do you even start? We asked three freelancers for their advice on how to become a freelancer, from dealing with finances to finding new clients.

1. Have a financial safety net

One of the most important tips freelance illustrator Tom Woolley gives is to build up a financial safety net: “I would always recommend, especially in the early days, having other income streams.” 

That’s not possible for everyone, however. If you can’t keep up a job while freelancing, perhaps you could consider building a financial buffer before you go take the plunge. For example, you could calculate how much you would need to cover three to six months’ worth of bills, without the need to bring in any money from freelancing. 

This is because it can take time to grow a consistent client base. And even once you are established, there may be fallow periods.

“Be prepared for the feast and famine aspect of freelancing,” warns Rebecca Hendry, a Spanish to English translator, who initially combined her freelance work with teaching. There will be times when you are inundated with work and others when you might wonder if you’ll ever work again. And in order to give your new freelance career a proper chance, it is important to allow for both and not throw in the towel as soon as a quiet period comes along. 

There are also ways you can use that down time. “Embrace the quiet periods when they come,” Rebecca suggests. “Use the time to do admin, marketing or,” she whispers, “to relax.”

2. Create and update your portfolio

Having another income stream will give you the time you need to create a strong portfolio of your work that you can show to potential clients, without the pressure of immediately needing to make money. While this may just be a case of gathering work and making it presentable, you could also use the time to fill in any gaps you find along the way. 

“I spent the first six months building a portfolio,” explains Tom. “It was a mixture of personal projects and work I’d been commissioned to do.”  

Sade Taiwo similarly spent six “intense” months working on a product design portfolio she could use to woo clients.

But this portfolio shouldn’t be static. “It’s constantly evolving,” says Tom. “It’s a case of trying to find the areas you want to move into, and having pieces in your portfolio that can help you do that.”

3. Find and build a community 

When putting together your portfolio, talking to other freelancers in your field can be invaluable. As Tom says, “don’t think of them as your competitors, think of them as your colleagues.”

Sade agrees. “It’s a different sense of community because you are all working for yourself,” she explains. “But you are all working together.” 

Fellow freelancers can not only act as a support system, but can provide guidance on how much to charge. “When I’ve had conversations with other illustrators about how much they charge,” Tom says, “they have been the most eye-opening.”

Talking about money can sometimes be difficult, however. “When I started out, translators all seemed a bit cagey when talking about rates”, reflects Rebecca. “I think that’s changed now and people are more up front about what they charge.”

4. Don’t undervalue yourself

When freelancing, you will encounter clients of all shapes, sizes, and, crucially, budgets. It is important to research freelance rates in your industry and to establish a rate card for yourself. It is also a good idea to create a personal, but private, sliding scale which you would be happy to be flexible within.    

“Each job is different,” says Tom. “You have to take into consideration the client that is asking for a quote. If a London design agency is asking you to do an illustration, they are going to have a much bigger budget set aside for illustration than, say, a family run company.”

While you should take into consideration the client, you should also know the value of your work. “Sometimes you will get people coming back to you saying, ‘oh, that’s a lot more than other people have quoted us’,” Tom says. “But if you are confident in your price, I don’t think it is a good idea to undervalue yourself.” 

It can be tough to stick to this advice in the early days, when you may need the work and feel pressured to bend to the client’s demands. But freelancing requires a thick skin. And, as Tom says, “if you reply to a commission request with a price you feel is balanced and fair, then that’s the best you can do.” Neither you, nor the client, can ask for more than that.

5. Personalise how you approach clients

Although you will hopefully build up a stable set of repeat customers who send work your way over time, the life of a freelancer always involves hustling for the next client. But there are smarter ways to go about it than casting the widest net possible.

“I’ve never reached out to hundreds and hundreds of people” says Sade. “I’ve always made sure the people I’m reaching out to make sense and match my experience.”

And it’s not just who you reach out to, but how. “Making your [client] outreach a bit more personalised is much more fruitful,” she recommends. “Give clients evidence that you are the person to solve their problems.”

For example, you could tailor the portfolio of work you send over to only include projects that are similar to the problem the client faces. And be explicit about how these experiences match their needs. This way, the client can more quickly and accurately assess whether you are the right person for the job. 

6. Consider hiring an accountant

Not everyone will need an accountant to help them with their finances. Rebecca, for example, has found she doesn’t need one. “I had a bit of help with tax returns to begin with but I do them all myself now,” she explains. “My accounts are fairly straightforward though because of the nature of my business.”

However, as Rebecca alludes to, it can be tricky in the beginning. “I remember doing my self-assessment and getting it wrong,” says Tom, “and then receiving emails from HMRC saying I owe them money.”

If the thought of looking after your own taxes scares you, then maybe think about finding some help. “I’d recommend getting an accountant if you are not confident in doing your own self-assessment,” says Tom. “It takes a lot of the pressure off.”

7. Make up your own rules

It’s fantastic to have tips from other freelancers, but half the fun of going freelance is being your own boss and creating your own way of working. And that shouldn’t be forgotten.

“Make up your own rules,” says Sade. “People need to find their own ways of approaching things that align with their strengths and experience.”

» MORE: Best freelance jobs

Image source: Getty Images

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